Dawn Lee of The Donut Cooperative
Editor’s Note: The Donut Cooperative is now closed.
Fresh, local, and radical. The punchy motto of The Donut Cooperative set fire to foodie neurons throughout the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, sending the masses in a frenzy over artisanal, ethically sound — and occasionally vegan — yeast-raised doughnuts. But how radical could a purveyor of toroidal breakfast pastries actually be? We sat down with the Cooperative’s Dawn Lee to find out.
According to Lee, it all began with a question that may seem familiar to most of you: “Where are we going to go eat?” She and her friends went looking for raised doughnuts in Minneapolis-St. Paul and came up empty-handed. “There are lots of cake doughnut places in the Cities, but we really prefer the raised kind,” says Lee. “The ones from Cub Foods are awesome, but you can only justify eating two of those.”
The main difference between cake and yeast-raised doughnuts is — you guessed it — the leaveners. Cake doughnut recipes utilize either baking soda or baking powder to create a denser, richer pastry. Raised doughnuts turn out lighter and airier, and are often crunchier on the outside as well.
Lee and her cohorts recognized that there was a niche that was yet to be filled in the Twin Cities, but they weren’t quite sure what to do about it. “[Opening a doughnut shop] was a pipe dream. But then we thought, ‘Someone else can do it, but it might not necessarily be according to sustainable principles.'” Lee teamed up with Laura Kennedy, a coworker who also baked as a hobby, to develop their concept.
In a way that seems typical of the Cooperative’s style, their doughnuts are inclusive, but fiercely unique. Lee (below, right) and Kennedy (below, left) decided to keep things simple, limiting their offerings to raised doughnuts (vegan and non-vegan) and Peace Coffee only. “We won’t have fritters, crullers, or cake doughnuts,” says Lee.
As it turns out, Kennedy’s doughnut recipe has become a compromise between the two types, though it is still technically yeast-raised.
Lee credits her cognizance of sustainability to her job at the Mississippi Market Co-op in St. Paul. Apart from the obvious produce details — milk from Crystal Ball Farms, eggs from Larry Schultz Organic Farm — the Cooperative plans to extend the benefits to their employees. “We’ll pay everyone at least a living wage,” says Lee. “If we’re profitable, employees should receive a share of that. If people take pride in their work, it contributes to higher morale.” They also have a bicycle delivery system in the works, originating at their shop-in-progress in South Minneapolis. “We’re thinking, as long as people order about 48 hours ahead, we can deliver to as far as Uptown or Downtown Minneapolis.”
And so, about six months ago, Lee and Kennedy began to spread the gospel of sustainable yeast-raised doughnuts via Facebook and Twitter, using Kickstarter as a platform to solicit donations to their cause. Kickstarter provided the website, donation forms, and donor incentive system; Lee and Kennedy just had to apply online, fill in the blanks, and do all of the promotion. “We saw that a snowcone cart had raised more than $7,000 on Kickstarter. If they could do it, we definitely could,” says Lee.
They and their team of breakfast pastry fanatics had 90 days to raise $10,000. “We started a Facebook page and sent it out to our friends; from there, it just took off as more and more people started to notice us on their friends’ pages.” Thanks to the hundreds of people who spread the word, attended their appearances at special events and Trash Film Debauchery screenings, and actually donated money, they exceeded their goals with a few days left to spare. (Several Heavy Table contributors, including myself, were among their backers.)
Since then, it has all been a whirlwind for Lee, who has been in charge of pretty much everything except the actual baking. “I really didn’t think it’d be as overwhelming as it’s been!” There have been numerous permits to apply for and fees to pay, but the bulk of the effort has been in the waiting. Their doughnut shop-to-be is located at 3507 23rd Ave S in the
Longfellow Corcoran neighborhood, right across the street from the Chatterbox Pub. They hope to be open with limited hours within the next month until the shop’s kitchen is approved by the city. At the time of our interview, Kennedy was furiously working on the custom flavors ordered by their $250+ donors, which included citrus lavender goat cheese mousse, vegan chai, and chili dog.
The Cooperative’s fundraising success thus far may be speaking to the emergence of a new obsession in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “Doughnuts are definitely the new cupcake,” says Lee. “It’s hard to even compare the two, but…” She ponders. “There’s something infantile about cupcakes. Our doughnuts remind me of sitting down and having a really nice tea. They’re gorgeous.” At the planned price of $15 / dozen ($18 for vegan doughnuts), they present a much lighter price point than gourmet cupcakes, which tend to hover around $3 per cake. And cupcakes, despite their many good qualities, have never been able to shake their reputation as a party favor that often evokes the image of Sarah Jessica Parker in a tutu. This could be a gang war in the making.